Over the last five days shock, anger, and disgust have been the predominant fandom emotions for many Expanded Universe fans, especially women. Outrage that began after Friday’s EU Cantina column boiled over again today in reaction to comments posted at Club Jade’s editorial. Star Wars fans like to view ourselves as a welcoming, tolerant, and inclusive bunch – and that can make it deceptively easy to forget that divisive and regressive perspectives still exist within the fandom. Sadly, they’ve reared their ugly heads again this week, reminding us that, yes, some people really do still think like that. Fortunately, I think there’s cause for optimism, too. The silver lining is that airing the dirty laundry can become a positive point of change when it provides momentum for moving forward.
Most importantly, I am thrilled and proud to see so many female fans speaking up to make their voices heard all across the internet. In the recent past, when a handful of male-dominated sites were the only major venues for fandom discussions, the same sorts of misogynistic tropes we saw this week – belittling women’s fandom importance, accusing women of irrational emotional thinking instead of logic, and insisting that sexualizing female characters is the only way to get men to pay attention – usually went unchallenged as gospel truth. A small group of self-involved fanboys declared themselves the target demographic of the EU product line enough times that they started to actually believe it. And our contrary voices, when we weren’t too fatalistically browbeaten to raise them, too often were shouted down, bullied into departing, or banned into silence. One of the main reasons I started FANgirl Blog was to help break this stranglehold on fandom discourse, and make sure fangirls’ interests were heard just as vocally and forcefully.
What we’ve seen this week is another reaffirmation that women really do want to love the EU books, and they’re talking about what they’d need to see from the product line to earn their enthusiasm again. A decade ago, the EU novels had a large and active female fanbase, but they lost much of it over time as fangirl-friendly storylines and character arcs grew more and more scarce. As many of the women commenting this week have aptly pointed out, broadening the fanbase for the novels is the key to getting sales and profit back to where they used to be – if not better. Writing the female characters better in the ensemble cast stories can make a huge difference, but having some novels with a female lead protagonist who actually resonates with female fans is needed, too. Perhaps some male fans will be too close-minded or prejudiced to buy a female-centric novel, but the aggregate increase in the customer base will more than make up the difference. As admitted by multiple male fans as they argued for the status quo, many aren’t even reading all the books, so it begs the question why it matters to them that some books are targeted at different demographics? In the age of The Hunger Games’ smashing and sustained publishing and theatrical success and a forty percent female audience for The Avengers’ record-shattering opening weekend, writing off female fans is simply bad business.
But of course, the notion that well-written strong female heroines are only appealing to female fans is equally misguided. The opening weekend audience for The Hunger Games was forty percent male; The Legend of Korra is carrying a substantial boy demographic, too. Today on Facebook, Star Wars Books asked fans to name the EU book with their favorite Jaina Solo plot. A majority of the responses came from men, which is reflective of their current following, and they included many of the same books that the female fans named too, such as Dark Journey, Rebel Dream, Rebel Stand, Revelation, Invincible, and Apocalypse. When she’s featured and written well, Jaina captures the imagination of male and female fans – just like her mother Leia and her aunt Mara before her.
Personally, I think Jaina’s best book is yet to be written: one that showcases her as a woman, mother or mentor, wife, and Master of the light side of the Force. When that book is written by an author who truly believes in the character and the story, Del Rey and Star Wars will have a hitmaker on their hands. And she will only be the start of great female characters to come.
My optimism for the future is fueled by my experience last Thursday speaking at the Belvedere-Tiburon Library in California. When my talk ended, I spoke to many of the people who attended. Several young girls told me how inspired they were by realizing just how many opportunities they had for careers or fandom participation in genre storytelling – they had never known how many doors were open to them. A mother talked to me about how she hadn’t considered just how much the themes and message of stories could affect her daughter’s perception of herself and the society around her. And a woman who wrote a highly successful self-help book for mothers like herself balancing career and family reminded me that in most family households, it’s Mom who drives the spending decisions.
Whether as professionals, fans, or customers, women have more power than ever to influence the direction of our favorite franchises – or to create our own. That’s always going to make some men angry, and it’s as inevitable as it is sad. The ranting from the fringe deserves the backlash and ostracizing it earns, but one thing those marginalized voices can’t do is take away the power of our voices to speak up for change – and for ourselves.
Tricia will be hosting a panel on strong female characters in the Star Wars Expanded Universe at this year’s GeekGirlCon in Seattle.